Bacterial infections—once a major cause of human mortality—have been tamed a bit since the widespread introduction of antibiotics in the first half of the 20th century. The chances of dying from common infections are much lower now than before we had sufonamides, penicillins, tetracyclines, and scores of newer useful drugs.
Even with the advances, tens of thousands do still perish by bacterial invaders, mostly because the critters are resistant to our best chemical efforts to thwart their growth. Many experts think we are losing the race to develop new drugs as fast as the organisms figure ways to evade them. Perhaps, some speculate, we will eventually find ourselves back to the days when no useful medicines are available.
Luckily, scientists don’t give up so easily, and most relish the challenge of developing breakthrough ideas. Take a recent publication in Nature Chemistry (published online April 3, 2011). A combined academic/industrial research collaboration reports development of new nanomaterials that poke holes in bacterial membranes. Nobody like holes in their cells, and in fact most cells will simply expire when confronted with such disastrous damage.
More specifically, Nederberg et al. created a hybrid molecule that contains water-loving (hydrophilic) and water-repelling (hydrophobic) domains. Such molecules are essentially detergents and form clumped (micellar) extended structures in water. The hydrophilic parts are positively charged peptides designed to interact specifically with negatively charged bacterial membranes and thus exert their detergent-like action only on the pesky microbe.
The results are encouraging. The new drug is effective against staph and other bacteria, as well as some fungi. Best of all, preliminary toxicology didn’t reveal any major worries. Still, contrary to the authors’ view, I’m not optimistic that bacteria in the end won’t outsmart us by becoming resistant. In the meantime, if we have an effective agent against the dreaded MRSA (methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus), we’ll count it as progress.